The Day I Didn’t Help Bury Bobby Kennedy

A Facebook Friend said he was writing something about the death of RFK (Bobby Kennedy), and did I have any thoughts or memories? Here’s what came up:

When RFK was killed, June 6, 1968, I was in suburban DC with my first wife & 3 buddies, working on a book about the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). It was planned to be a pictures-and-text thing; everyone else was a photographer; I was the writer.

RFK’s funeral was in Arlington Cemetery, next or close to JFK. We all had press credentials & the others decided to go & see if they could get with the other photogs and shoot some film.

I decided to skip it. Every scribbler in a hundred miles would be there, I figured, and why add more cliches to the pile? Besides, the whole reason we were there was because of Dr. King’s murder just weeks before.

Really, it felt like only days ago; 7th and 14th Streets in DC were long blocks of burned out rubble, probably still smoking. I had worked for King, been in jail with him. I had expected his death (as did he), but it still hit hard.

Washington DC, rubble in the wake of riots after Dr. King’s murder, April 4, 1968.

The PPC was supposed to preserve & advance Dr. King’s legacy, but was in fact sinking into the chaos & mud of DC’s rainiest summer in 25 years. That was adding to the post-assassination, post-riot gloom. Then this.

I hadn’t even been an RFK fan, had preferred Gene McCarthy in the presidential race that spring; but still.

When the others left our rented townhouse in Alexandria, I went down to the tacky rec room basement where the stereo was, stacked it with LPs and turned off the lights.

The records were hard rock: Jimi & Zappa (“Purple Haze”) & the Mothers (“No Way To Delay That Trouble Comin’ Every Day).

Hendrix-Cover Zappa-Freak-Out-Cover

The Stones. Maybe the Doors (“This Is The End”)

Loud. Nothing mellow or folkie. Only the dark stuff, in the darkness, up near the limit of the volume, was adequate.

The sound didn’t blot out the dread of the day, but it somehow helped me stay on top of it, like surfing a dangerous wave.

When the others came back and reported, hours later, I felt no regrets. The photographers, they said, had been crammed onto a platform, where the scene was like an ongoing brawl. The veterans pushed, shoved & swore nonstop, wielding the huge long lenses of their Nikons like weapons, weaving this way & that to get better views as the family & dignitaries sweated in the heat and sleepwalked through their steps and genuflections a few dozen yards away.

All my colleagues were disgusted by the whole scene, and repeated their stories for my tape recorder.

TheDoors-coverThen we turned on the music, not quite as loud, and I was ready to hear the records all again. After all, the next day we would have to get back to our main assignment, watching and recording as Dr. King’s last campaign sank slowly into its own oblivion.

In the end, our project too became a victim of that awful summer: the three photographers shot a thousand rolls of film, but of those 36000 images, only one was published, on the cover of the book, Uncertain Resurrection, which appeared the following summer, with only my name on the title page, and sank without a trace.

The author, taping the Poor Peoples Campaign, summer 1968.

Never mind how that happened; I was a wreck too, and was only able to force myself to write the text because the publisher had sent us some advance money and we had spent it all. Otherwise I would have returned the cash and been relieved to forget the whole thing.

As everyone else did, including the day I didn’t go watch them bury RFK.

[POSTSCRIPT: 1968 didn’t get much better after RFK was buried.  In November, Richard Nixon was elected president. . . .

Then I woke up  and it was more than fifty years later, but now Gorbachev, who I hadn’t even head of then, is dead, and too much is too weirdly familiar . . . ]

Uncertain Resurrection
My book; not a best seller. A new edition is out for the 50th anniversary of the PPC.
The new edition is available in paperback on Amazon & for Kindle:


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